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At Canadian University, Men Confess The Sin Of Not Being Women

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A male student sprints through a parking lot only to come upon dozens of classmates and faculty standing in a line.

STUDENT: D-mn. I knew I should have come earlier.

STUDENT 2: Shhh. Show some respect. And cool it with the violent language.

The student center hasn’t seen a line like this since season tickets went on sale for the U of R Cougars men’s hockey team. Each man—and they all are men—affixes a countenance of agony, the same look that season ticket-holders no doubt feel after the Cougars opened the 2017 season 3-26-3.

Their hands are folded piously, and no one makes eye contact, preferring to stare at shuffling feet. We go through the parking lot line, camera starting overhead before descending as it crosses the entrance of LAB BUILDING, zooming past dozens of pairs of identical Toms shoes.


Camera comes to a stop on three pairs of feet: a pair of Redwings work boots and two pairs of Toms. The first pair of feet steps off-screen. Camera pans up to show a man entering an impromptu wooden booth affixed with a sign reading: “MASCULINITY CONFESSIONAL” in Gothic letters.


The owner of the Toms is DERECK, who is kneeling now in front of a curtain shaped like a labia bearing the inscription “Read My Lips, No More Toxic Masculinity.” The silhouette of a head stands hidden behind the screen. This is MOTHER MORAL SUPERIOR.

Dereck glances down at an instructional card, takes a here-goes-nothing deep breath.

DERECK: Bless me, mother, for I have sinned. It has been 21 years since I obtained my privilege.

MOTHER MORAL SUPERIOR: May Gaia be in your heart to confess your sins with true sorrow.

DERECK: Where to begin? I guess we could start with yesterday. I was walking into my chemistry lab and I held the door open for my female classmate and had lustful thoughts when I caught a glimpse of her yoga pants as she passed by.

MMS: Ah, the gateway drug to sexual violence.

DERECK: I know, Mother. But I have lustful thoughts constantly. It barely takes anything to get me going these days.

MMS: Lustful thoughts? We’re sex-positive here, my son, provided there’s consent. Holding the door, however, is verrry problematic. Do you know why men began holding doors open for women? It started in the caveman days. Men and women used to be equally strong, but men began holding doors open and after several generations our arm muscles atrophied, allowing men to become stronger and thus sexually dominant. How many times have you done this?

DERECK: Oh, Mother Moral Superior. Too many times to count. My father made me start doing it at five. Seventeen years! If only I had known! Can Gaia forgive me this trespass?

MMS: Gaia can forgive, but only with true contrition. For penance say 4,005 Hail Margarets.

DERECK: You mean Hail Marys?

MMS: Don’t mansplain penance to me. That’s another 200.

DERECK: Have mercy on me, Mother. My privilege must have clouded my perception. Please explain the Hail Margaret.

MMS: Say it with me now: Hail Margaret, full of grace, Moloch is with thee. (Dereck begins repeating.) Blessed art thou amongst cis-women. And blessed is the fruit of thy suctioned-out womb. Holy Sanger, Mother of Eugenics, pray for us sinners, now and at the shouting of our abortion, Amen.

MMS: (Alone) Gaia the Mather of mercies, through the death of millions of unborn children, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent Gloria Steinem among us for the forgiveness of toxic masculinity. Through the ministry of the Human Rights Commission, may Gaia grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Mother, and of the Daughter, and of Betty Friedan. Amen.

DERECK: (tearfully) Thank you, Mother Moral Superior.


Dereck exits the booth, wiping tears from his eyes. JORDAN, the next man in line, gives him a hearty hug as the two cross paths.

JORDAN: Bro, way to express yourself. Every tear you shed is a drop of toxic masculinity that’s no longer pent up in your body.


JORDAN: Bless me, Mother, for I have sinned. It has been 19 years since I obtained my privilege.

MMS: May Gaia be in your heart to confess your sins with true sorrow.

JORDAN: I have offended Gaia many times, Mother Superior. At least four times I have given women compliments in my chem class that I would not have given to cis-men classmates. I mispronounced Simone de Beauvoir’s name on four occasions. I have…

MMS: These are venial transgressions at best, my son. Any compliment that promotes women in STEM is a virtue and no one can pronounce Simone de B…umm her name. It feels as though you are dancing around a far more serious sin.

JORDAN: Oh, Mother, I should have known you would be so perceptive. Yes, yes I am.

MMS: Go on, my son. This is a safe space.

JORDAN: I have sinned against my girlfriend—see, even now. I am putting labels on what we are without her permission. We have been seeing each other exclusively for three months, though. I take her to hockey games instead of asking what she would like to do. I body-shamed her in my heart for not ordering a salad during our second date. And while I obtained consent for sex, I forgot to ask when began kissing. I…


JORDAN: Wait, what?

The door to the confessional is ripped open and three brawny men wearing “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts reach in and haul Jordan off the kneeler.

JORDAN: Have mercy, Mother Superior. I obtained consent. I thought you said this was a safe space?

MMS: Not for rapists. Male allies, bring him before the Harassment, Discrimination Prevention and Conflict Resolution Services.


The three brawny men drag away a wailing Jordan.

JORDAN: But I gave Amy Schumer a five-star rating. Five Staaaaaars.

MMS: No more battery,
No more rape,

No more woman hate!

The entire crowd joins in the chant, drowning out Jordan’s protests. The camera is zoomed in on Jordan in the arms of the male allies as he is dragged past the front of the line. A wad of dip spit lands on his face, presumably from the owner of the Redwings work boots, who is also wearing cut-off flannel shirt and jeans. REDWINGS approaches the booth.


REDWINGS: (In a surprisingly high pitched voice) Bless me, Mother, for I have sinned. It has been six months since I obtained my privilege.

MMS: (a bit confused): Six…errr…May Gaia be in your heart to confess your sins with true sorrow.

REDWINGS: Mother, I have relished in the toxicness of masculinity my entire life. I pick fights and drive a pick-up without any consideration for Blessed Gaia’s planet. I watch the UFC whenever I get the chance. I police my partner Karen’s outfits whenever we go out…

MMS: Karen? Wait a second, Samantha is that you?

REDWINGS: Excuse me?

MMS pulls back the curtain for the first time. She is a harmless-looking young woman in large-framed glasses. REDWINGS sports a GI Jane haircut, but aside from that looks like a woman.

MMS: Samantha! I haven’t seen you since sophomore year. How’s Karen doing?

REDWINGS: That is not my name.

MMS: What are you doing here? This is only for people looking to confess toxic masculinity. It’s not for us.


MMS: Wait what? No, I’m an ally. There’s been a mistake.

The door to the confessional is ripped open. Three sets of hands, black “This Is What a Trans-Ally Looks Like” T-shirts.

REDWINGS: Take her to Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services

MMS: But I love “Orange is the New…”

REDWINGS: (taking MMS’ seat behind the curtain) When trans youth are under attack
What do you do?
Stand up fight back.

The crowd drowns out MMS’ protests as she is dragged away.

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13 hours ago
I chuckled at the "Hail Margaret"
Lafayette, LA, USA
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‘To Walk Invisible’ Explores The Suffering And Genius Of The Brontë Sisters

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The Brontë sisters lived sad, and tragically short, lives. Yet they managed to write stories and poems filled with mystery, passion, and intellect.

Masterpiece Theatre’s short film on the sisters, “To Walk Invisible,” is a beautiful (and sad) look at the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. It chronicles three pivotal years in their personal and literary lives—a period which marks the beginning of their writing careers, and the decline of their brother Bramwell, also an aspiring artist, who succumbed to opioid and alcohol addiction.

The film itself is lovely. It captures the Brontë’s beloved moors, mysterious talent, and moving devotion to each other. The costuming and set are thoughtfully prepared. One could say this film is the perfect foil for Masterpiece’s “Victoria” series, which is basically a nineteenth-century soap opera. The latter proffers palace intrigue, sparkle, and way too much mascara and brow liner for a Victorian-era society. The former, however, is simple, even austere at times, with an attention to detail and historical correctness that make the film shine.

What Inspired the Brontë Sisters’ Writing?

When reading the Brontë sisters’ works, perhaps the first sentiment that stands out is their strangeness. A tempestuous and brooding tone fills the pages of “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” There’s melancholy, heartbreak, and passion. Both books feature mysterious and often unhappy heroines. How did these sisters—who left work as schoolteachers and governesses to care for their ailing father and brother—manage to conjure up such narratives?

Judith Shulevitz suggested for The Atlantic that the Brontë’s childhood adventures helped shape their literary voices:

Motherless since they were very young, the Brontës enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds. They read everything they could; spent long afternoons on the moor that began at their back door; invented exotic kingdoms with voluminous histories and political intrigues; put on plays only they would see; issued magazines only they would read; and sewed novels and poems into miniature books written in script so tiny that no adult in the household could decipher them.

We get a taste of this at the beginning of “To Walk Invisible.” In the film’s opening scene, all four siblings are pictured playing with each other, while a fiery flame hovers above each child’s head. It’s meant to portray their talent—their imaginative genius. And it’s very important that all four children, Bramwell included, share the flame.

Why Bramwell Brontë Matters So Much to This Story

The sisters continue to write in secret, even as their lives shift and change. After Bramwell has an affair with his boss’s wife and loses his job, he begins succumbing to drink and drugs. This, some would say, is secondary to the Brontë sisters’ own tale, and should not be overemphasized. Sophie Gilbert complained in her review of the series that Director Sally Wainwright spends too much time focusing on Bramwell.

But Bramwell’s story is indispensable to his sisters’. When we read about the life of Jane Austen, we’re struck by her fortitude and wit. But we rarely stop to think about the different space she inhabited: the rarity of female writers alive in her world (although there were a few), the societal and financial pressures on an “old maid.” In the Brontë’s case, we must add to this motherlessness the loss of two siblings and the addictive decline of another. They knew their father was growing old, and they needed some method to support themselves. Writing was not just a vocational aspiration, it was a financial necessity.

It’s also worth considering the way in which adversity separates the gold from the dross. The Brontë sisters, inhabiting a trouble-filled world, needed a respite from their hardships. Writing provided that. But they didn’t leave their troubles behind when they wrote: their stories were sharpened and honed by their hardships. Jane Eyre’s quiet plight has appealed to many women with unhappy childhoods, because—at least in this sense—she is real, less paper and pen than flesh and blood.

‘To Walk Invisible’ Shows How Suffering Shapes Genius

Perhaps the film is meant to offer commentary on gender roles and conceptions of privilege in the Brontë’s world. Bramwell had every opportunity for success, but wasted each chance he was given. The Brontë sisters had few opportunities to hone a successful career, yet used each one to optimum effect and crafted opportunities where none existed.

But I don’t think Wainwright is pigeonholing the Brontë sisters (or their world) by making it a feminist object lesson. Indeed, their aging father, while bewildered and surprised when he discovers their fame, is also excited by and encouraging of their success. After the sisters’ publisher overcomes his initial shock at the fact that the “Bell brothers” whose work he’s been publishing are actually the Brontë sisters, he is overjoyed to meet them in person, and insists on introducing them London’s intellectual stars.

The series suggests that the sisters’ initial use of pseudonyms, while partially inspired by their desire to succeed in the “man’s world” of publishing, was also part of their effort not to shame their brother, who never succeeded in his artistic enterprises.

Thus, love for Bramwell animates the series, giving depth to the sisters’ writing and personal travails. In one particularly moving scene, they take Bramwell back into their arms, and lives, at his very worst and lowest. At least in this story, the siblings of the prodigal always proffer an open door, no matter the cost.

You Should Watch This Thoughtful, Lovely Film

These are not the only parts of the film worth applauding. The film’s consideration of addiction and abuse offer commentary on our own culture. The sisters’ dedication to their father’s happiness is also a touching aspect of the film. It would also have been interesting to hear more of Charlotte’s own back story—of all the characters in this film, she feels the most illusory (perhaps intentionally).

Because of Bramwell’s sordid past and unhappy decline, there are a few moments that make this short film inappropriate for kids. But for those who enjoy the Brontës’ work (and even those who don’t), this is a worthy and thoughtful piece. It considers the meaning of family and sacrifice, love and suffering. It will be available to watch on PBS’s website until April 9, so you should watch it while you can.

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15 hours ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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The Freedom Caucus Is The Silver Lining In The Obamacare Debacle


Their failure to pass the Obamacare “repeal and replace” bill was a disaster for House Republicans. The only way the disaster could have been worse is if they had passed it.

This was a case of “you had one job” if ever there was one. Republicans have spent the past seven years obstructing Obamacare, complaining about it, campaigning against it, promising to repeal it, and repeatedly putting forward repeal votes. The American people rewarded them with two smashing midterm congressional victories that gave them control of both the House and the Senate. Now, with a Republican in the White House who would presumably sign whatever they put in front of him, there was no excuse for failing to deliver on that one big promise.

Yet somehow they have still managed to do it. You’ve got to admire ingenuity like that.

The causes were pretty obvious, and I already covered them prospectively. The first was tactical: making “repeal and replace” one package deal, instead of a straight repeal first, followed by a new set of health-care reforms. Instead of using the repeal to create pressure to pass the subsequent reforms, they made the repeal dependent on getting everyone to agree on a package of reforms—which was never going to happen.

The second error was more basic and philosophical: the whole idea of “replacing” Obamacare, which already stacked the decks toward Obamacare Lite. It committed them to something that would try to do more or less the same thing as Obamacare, instead of actual free-market reforms. As I explained, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s big claim to fame was his willingness to tackle entitlement reform, and that’s exactly how he approached this: Democrats pass the new entitlements, and Republicans reform them. It’s a long and depressing old story, filed under the heading, “Me Too.”

Yet there was still something new and hopeful to come out of this debacle. It was precisely the reason the Obamacare Lite replacement failed: the intransigence of the House Freedom Caucus.

Yes, that’s a good thing, because we know how a bill like this would have worked in the past. The Republican leadership would decide they need to nominally “repeal” Obamacare to appease the base, while actually keeping major parts of it to avoid being called mean and horrible (which they will be called anyway). So they cobble together an awful, botched compromise, then force it down everybody’s throat, and nobody is able to stand up and stop it.

They certainly tried to do it this time. President Trump just wanted a bill and didn’t care what was in it, responding to objections from the Freedom Caucus by telling them to “Forget about the little sh–,” which is a really great way of confirming to someone that you don’t care about the things he cares about. But they were expected to swallow what was served to them, with Steve Bannon thundering, “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.”

Ah, but they did have a choice. The Federalist’s own Ben Domenech fills in the missing link, pointing out that this is the product of “a post-earmark legislative process.” Until he mentioned it, I had almost forgotten that part of the story. It’s easy to overlook, because it’s a matter of what is not there, the proverbial dog that didn’t bark.

What we have not seen is the old-fashioned arm-twisting that was routine under the system of congressional earmarks for spending. What we haven’t seen is a progression of lawmakers being either enticed with the promise of lavish new funds for projects in their districts, or threatened with the withdrawal of that spending.

When Republicans got rid of earmarks a decade ago, some of us pointed out that actual earmark spending was a tiny portion of the budget, about 1 percent of spending. The argument in return was that this 1 percent had a corrupting effect that multiplied its impact. For the sake of a few millions here or there in earmark spending, congressmen could be led into approving many billions more in giant new spending programs favored by their party leadership.

It looks like there was something to this argument. Eliminating earmarks meant that the members of the Freedom Caucus has less to gain and less to fear from the leadership. Or rather, it meant that they feared their constituents—whom they had promised to get rid of Obamacare—more than they feared Ryan or Trump. Way more than they feared Bannon. They were capable of so much independence that they actually formed a pact to resist outside pressure.

In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group—not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.

Twenty-eight of the group’s roughly three dozen members took the plunge.

Notice how this turns the big narrative of the last election on its head. We were supposed to support Trump because he was the guy who was finally going to break the corrupt Republican “establishment.” Now he’s the guy launching tweet-storms on behalf of the establishment and against the House Freedom Caucus—the guys who actually did break the GOP establishment. And all because the Tea Party movement brought a few dozen hard line small-government advocates into office, and the ban on earmarks helped them guard their independence.

Twenty-eight lawmakers who care about freedom and are willing to stand up for it is not nearly enough. But Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership now dare not make a step without bringing them on board. If they decide to be smart about it—and I’m not saying they will, but it’s always possibile—they’ll start over again with something that actually looks like a repeal of Obamacare.

So this is a pretty good start.

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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1 day ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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The Benedict Option Can’t Save Your Faith Or Family

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I’d been grinding my own wheat flour for two years by the time I read Rod Dreher’s “Crunchy Cons” in 2006. A friend had given it to me because of my, shall we say, “Benedict Option” lifestyle. Winter red wheat berries are the best for bread baking, while the soft white ones produce a fine, velvety pastry flour—a tip for those interested in that route.

Life is a tale told through talk, taste, and touch. It is memory and destiny at once. A Christian might say it is death and resurrection, if you give your life you keep it. So before we get to Dreher’s new book, “The Benedict Option,” let me a little of my story.

Watching the President Clinton impeachment trial years ago changed my life. Sensing a call to do what I could for my country, I let go of my dreams of a quiet life in academia and went off to law school. I sought out mentoring by great constitutional law professors so I would eventually contribute to bringing the judiciary back to constitutional originalism.

By the time I was in my second year in law school, my life was unravelling. Law school is brutal. It is even more so for those who are married with families. Our culture can be a meat grinder, and battling it in the front lines of federal courts is even bloodier. I couldn’t have it all, and I couldn’t do it all. So I chose my family. This began a trajectory of increasing retreat and insularity that would lead to me (religiously) grinding my own wheat and policing my children’s speech for what I deemed to be affirmations of worldly popular culture.

“The Benedict Option” rightly tells the reader there is no salvation in politics, our culture has morally collapsed, and Christians have amalgamated their faith with American popular culture. Dreher believes American Christians’ only viable choice is what he has dubbed the “Benedict Option.” He uses the monastic Benedictine spirituality and way of life as a prescriptive template for all Christians.

This includes such measures as: stable local living in small intentional Christian communities—“the Christian village”; cutting back on pop culture consumption; orienting the family towards God; creating sacramentally vibrant worship; pulling the kids out of public school and educating them classically either through private school, home school, or co-op; practicing hospitality and Christian neighborliness; buying from other Christians even if it costs more; building Christian employment networks; refusing to compromise to satisfy the whims of the young; fighting pornography—the list goes on. In short: avoid vice, and take up virtue.

It sounds nice on the surface, but that’s not how it often works out in practice. This option, no matter what you call it, leads to gospel amnesia, not to a flourishing Christian culture.

My Family’s Experiment with a pre-Benedict Option

Soon after I left law school, I had our third baby, and we moved so my husband would not need to drive 70 miles through Los Angeles traffic to work. We changed denominations from a nominally conservative but doctrinally thin Protestantism to a more explicitly Reformed Calvinism. I did what is natural for a person who wakes up to the fact that she has neglected something precious—I overcorrected.

While learning about Reformed theology, we were introduced to the writings of pastors who were putting forth a very similar vision to the one Dreher offers in his book, though none called it the “Benedict Option” at the time. Sometimes it was referred to as “communities of like-minded Christians,” or as one community’s motto had it, “Simple, Separate, and Deliberate.”

Some had ties to neo-agrarianism. Many of the leaders we read had ties to the classical Christian education movement. Generally it went under different names depending on the pastor and community. Some even had created successful “ministries,” companies that sold products aimed primarily at home schooling parents and celebrating a life outside of twenty-first-century American culture.

We were in our early thirties. We wanted a faith for us and our children that could withstand the culture’s battering, intellectual and otherwise. Ultimately, our faith in such methods, and our journey in and out of this Benedict Option, exhausted our faith and estranged one of our children. I do not hold a blanket resistance against Christians building strong robust churches and communities, but this method is inherently flawed. It weakens rather than builds.

Benedict Option Communities Are Intrinsically Weak

We were particularly captivated by two of these Benedict-like communities, both deliberately founded in smallish cities in rural states with easy access to land for member families. We listened to recordings of their pastors and preeminent community members espousing the glories of life together in their churches and neighborhoods. We were hooked. We were convinced we had to go this route to survive degenerated American culture and raise godly children.

This was part of the impetus that drove us to flee Southern California, not to join one of these seemingly exemplary Benedict-like communities, but to at least be closer to other sympathizers, to join a community that affirmed the same creed and stood in solidarity with the brave agrarian vanguard of authentic Christianity. This was conveniently facilitated by the leaders of these exemplary communities having founded their own Protestant denominations, whose member churches could easily be identified online.

So for a time we found our solidarity and quasi-Benedictine community in this little corner of Christendom, but didn’t yet realize what a little corner it was. Church authority was held in high regard, but it gradually became clear that few could agree on what that meant. Everyone (inspired by genuine Christian motives, I concede) believed a countercultural lifestyle was of primary importance. This left matters of church governance to be of secondary importance at best, and through a series of events, the church and community fell apart.

Ours wasn’t the only Benedict-like community to suffer such a fate. Several of the exemplary communities we had looked up to unraveled to various degrees within the same decade. Verbal, ecclesiastical, and sometimes criminal charges of abuse, whisper campaigns, and blogosphere broadsides weakened the abilities of these communities not only to be lights to the world, but to serve their own members and families.

That leads me to my critique. Many of the families who come together to form these communities believe they are being obedient to God or purer in faith. But what begins as a good desire turns into a measuring rod. Families begin comparing themselves to one another and to those outside the community. Who can be more rigorous, and hence more faithful? Soon these judgments begin to build a wall that insulates those inside the community from the world outside. One sees a rise in authoritarian behavior, paranoia, and an insular mindset. It even distanced families in the community from kin who were not.

Those joining must soon be able to show they can check off the righteousness boxes. Sure, anyone can repent and believe the gospel, but can you live without both cable and Netflix? Can you homeschool your eight kids, including the 10-year-old special-needs son, without institutional involvement? Can you all show up twice a week to choir practice?

Can you derive an income for your household without taint from large immoral corporations or (gasp) government employment? Can you source at least half your family’s food from your own garden, pasture, and henhouse? Because the Smiths can. And the Joneses. And the Johnsons. And they are righteous. Not sure if you are. Welcome to the community.

What begins as a good desire turns into a measuring rod.

This process diminishes the gospel, reducing it to a set of propositions one assents to, but what rises to primary importance is the list of distinctives. Distinctives are qualities the people of that community hold to be signs of faithfulness and Christian maturation. For some communities home schooling becomes one of the most important signs of a family’s obedience to God. In other communities it was agrarian living, still others it was classical education, or liturgical church worship. Every community had a slightly different ordering of these distinctives. But they all had them; they were the “Benedict rule” for that community.

If you had asked me back then to name the most important thing in life, I would have responded with: “Love the Lord your God with all your mind, heart, and strength.” Everyone would have answered the same way. No one would have said: “home schooling,” or “four-part harmony singing,” or anything else. But if you probed further and asked what does loving God mean, people would have responded with these distinctives. These were envisioned as necessary derivatives of “Love the Lord your God.”

To be sure, the God of the Bible does give us commands, and does tell us what loving him should look like. But these secondary and tertiary components begin quickly to undermine and overwhelm the primacy of what God actually says. This is my next point: it doesn’t take long for these communities to begin elevating non-salvific distinctives to a place of primary importance.

Dreher’s Cautions Are Not Strong Enough

In “The Benedict Option” Dreher tries to say things like “don’t make family an idol,” “reach across church boundaries to build relationships,” “don’t idolize the community,” and so on. But it reads as an “Oh, by the way, just look out for this.”

I found this perplexing for several reasons: One, if you write a book suggesting to people that the most viable Christian way forward is to unite in small communities and live faithful Christian lives, and if you’ve taken the time to see the ways it’s been done and failed (as I know he has on his blog), you should take the time to mount an honest counter argument against your proposal. You should present it to readers, then show how your ideas are different from those that have been tried and failed or been riddled with heinous sin.

You should show how your ideas are different from those that have been tried and failed or been riddled with heinous sin.

It’s very curious that Dreher doesn’t mention the various Benedict Option communities that exist or have existed in the recent past and have been hampered by error, spiritual abuse, physical and sexual abuse, pettiness, and the like. It’s not that Dreher doesn’t know about these communities. He even exchanged several public blog post arguments with the pastor of an Idaho community who harbored a sexual child molester and helped get him married off, all while using his clerical platform to minimize the crimes and vilify the abuser’s victims. So why would Dreher not give space in a 244-page book to the empirical problems of actual intentional Christian communities?

Dreher gives only two mild examples of a Benedict option community not turning out well, but when read in the greater context of the book, you walk away thinking they were minimized, and that a general warning is enough to not fall into the ditch. The two counter points he gives are on page 129, and page 139 (in the galley copy). On page 129 he tells of a conversation with a high school senior he calls “an agonized young atheist.” She talks of her paranoid parents and gives this warning: “I wish you good luck with the Benedict Option,” she told me. “But please tell parents that if they want their kids to stay Christian, not to do what mine did. They smothered us and made us into rebels.”

If you had told me back then that I was being austere, I would have mocked your superficial, ‘Christian lite’ ideas.

To his credit Dreher does say on that same page, “It sometimes happens that mothers and fathers think they’re serving God by their austere discipline but in fact are driving their children away from Him.”

Right, but the fact is that most parents in the midst of such communities (I include myself in this criticism) do not realize they are being austere, because in those communities with the parent peer pressure toward producing “godly children” austere just looks like greater faithfulness. And which parent in those communities doesn’t want to be more faithful?

If you had told me back then that I was being austere (as my parents tried to warn me) with my children, I would have mocked your superficial, “Christian lite” ideas. You would have gotten an earfull, and three-quarters of Dreher’s 2017 arguments would have been spewing out of my mouth way back when the Benedict Option wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes. Sure enough, we lost a child to those ideas and way of life.

Quasi-Utopianism In The Benedict Option

America has a history of such utopian communities, more often than not separating themselves to be “Christian” in a distinct way from the surrounding culture. In a way, the Puritans who landed in New England were taking the “Benedict Option,” although they were anti-Catholic. One can still say that their goal was to build a community of faithful believers and raise their children in the faith.

History does not indicate that forming such family communities—even intentionally Christian ones—results in any kind of ark of preservation in a turbulent culture.

But we know the tragic end of the Puritans, their faith and doctrine degenerating into Unitarian universalism fewer than four generations from landing at Plymouth Rock. History does not indicate that forming such family communities—even intentionally Christian ones—results in any kind of ark of preservation in a turbulent culture.

Dreher has written that he is not suggesting any utopian community or a retreat from the world. It’s true, he doesn’t outright call for it. This only heightens the dissonance in the mind of the reader, because his qualifications come amid the explicitly monastic titular metaphor and his repeated cherry-picked glowing descriptions of such communities, which are in practice quasi utopian and retreatist.

Dreher does give some warnings to his readers: “‘If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,’ Father Marc continued. ‘It is a tricky balance between allowing freedom and openness on the one hand, and maintaining a community identity on the other. The idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol.’”

Dreher states: “Communities that are wrapped too tight for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community life, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible.”

Those warnings are good, but what Dreher gives with one hand he takes away with the other. Later in the book he waxes poetic:

We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. We read the Bible, and we tell our children about the saints. And we also tell them in the orchard and by the fireside about Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas, of Dante  and Don Quixote, and Frodo and Gandalf, and all the tales that bear what it means to be men and women of the West.

We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments. When we suffer, especially for Christ’s sake, we give thanks, because that is what Christians do. Who knows what God, in turn, will do with our faithfulness?

How exactly is this not utopian? For a serious-minded Christian this sounds like heaven on earth. It certainly sounds wonderful to me.

The problem is not that Dreher recommends Christians live faithful, sacramental lives. There are inherent anti-cultural elements to such living, but those elements are not problematic in the ways these intentional communities of like-minded Christians are. I am all for, and our family indeed practices, faithful sacramental behaviors. We think through the decisions we make for our family, for the education of our children, and for our spiritual maturity. These are not the issue; but these are not the Benedict Option. If that is all Dreher means, then he should not have used a phrase that presupposes certain things.

The reader is left confused because Dreher hints this is all the “Benedict option” is, living a faithful Christian life. At one point he quotes a writer, Leah Libresco, saying: “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’” Libresco told me. ‘But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.’”

One of the fair criticisms Dreher levels against modern Christians is that they are consumerists who fall for gimmicks and marketing. But it seems he is perfectly willing to use the method he decries to sell an idea to Christians. If that’s all this is, then “The Benedict Option” is a ruse.

I understand the longing for what Dreher describes in the Benedict Option. I still ache for it. There are ways to strengthen the family, to establish faithful churches, and to build a robust Christian culture. And it is good that we are having an honest discussion about them. But after our experience and that of others, I do not believe the Benedict option is it.

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1 day ago
What is the critical difference between intentional lay communities like Benedict Option communities and the actual monastic communities after which they are named. The monastic movement is millennia old and largely successful. Lay intentional movements rarely survive a generation before fizzling or self-destructing. Is the rule critical? Or celibacy? Or more perfect insularity from the world?
Lafayette, LA, USA
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Tyler Cowen says we’ve lost our mojo, but maybe it is just welfare?

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The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen describes some of the same behavior as The Redistribution Recession, but explains these behavioral changes as a massive cultural shift rather than as simple responses to changed incentives. Could this be an example of the fundamental attribution error? First, let’s look at what Cowen says…

These days Americans are less likely to switch jobs, less likely to move around the country, and, on a given day, less likely to go outside the house at all. For instance, the interstate migration rate has fallen 51 percent below its 1948 to 1971 average and has been falling steadily since the mid-1980s. There has been a decline in the number of start-ups, as a percentage of business activity, since the 1990s.

Economists see migration as a kind of investment. You give up something in the short run, namely the home, job, friends, and conveniences, in the hope of achieving something different and better somewhere else.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the residents of the United States were more geographically mobile than even those of Great Britain, which at the time was considered a very mobile society due to its political unification and relatively free labor markets. Cross-country moves were made by almost two-thirds of American men older than thirty years, whereas only a quarter of British men did the same.

Or, if we look at the rate of moving between counties within a state, it fell 31 percent. The rate of moving within a county fell 38 percent. Those are pretty steep drops for a country that has not changed its fundamental economic or political systems.

[I wish that an editor had removed every occurrence of the qualifier “pretty” from this book!]

For the most part, this decline in mobility is not fundamentally about changing demographics. Long-distance moves have declined considerably for all age groups, for homeowners and renters, and also for dual-income couples, so neither aging nor the difficulty of relocating a two-earner couple explain America’s recent lack of motion, even if those factors are driving the behavior of some specific individuals.

African Americans today have become especially immobile, and to an unprecedented degree. If we look at data on the last generation, 76 percent of African American mothers gave birth in the same state that their mothers did, whereas for white women that same figure was 65 percent, circa 2010. Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the best database of its kind, it is possible to trace a subset of 4,800 African American families from a cohort born between 1952 and 1982. If we consider the progression from youth to adulthood, 69 percent of that cohort remained in the same county, 82 percent remained in the same state, and 90 percent remained in the same region of the country. A generation earlier, the comparable numbers were 50, 65, and 74 percent, all lower. Adjusting for income, homeownership, and other demographic characteristics does not fundamentally eliminate this mobility gap. African Americans have gone from being an especially mobile group to an especially rooted one.

the two groups whose job mobility has dropped the most are the young workers and the less-educated workers, and thus those groups are more vulnerable and more exposed to the likelihood of a protracted spell of unemployment. Men have lost more job mobility than women have, and that too has hurt their labor market performance, especially in response to the Great Recession. Switching jobs is often one of the best ways to get a promotion or a wage boost, and if people are less likely to switch jobs, it will be that much harder for them to get ahead. Lower geographic mobility and lower or stagnant income mobility are two sides of the same broader problem, namely, excess stasis in general, at a fundamental cultural level.23 And here is a striking way to think about some of the underlying cultural shifts, given that mobility is often down the most for the less-skilled workers. In such a setting, poverty and low incomes have flipped from being reasons to move to reasons not to move, a fundamental change from earlier American attitudes. The older notion of moving to a city, by train or bus, and staying in a flophouse, or with relatives, until one finds a decent job is harder to pull off these days.

Maybe we shouldn’t be admitting male immigrants and should be trying to perfect a technology so that mostly female babies are born:

America is creating start-ups at lower rates each decade, and a smaller percentage of those start-ups is rising to prominence, as we see in more detail in chapter 4. We’re not even managing peaceful disruptions, much less violent ones, at our earlier rates. The big losers from a lot of these trends are the unskilled men, including those with the less peaceful or more violent inclinations. The contemporary world, for all of its virtues—indeed because of those virtues—is not very well built for some chunk of males. Current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a “feminized” culture allergic to many forms of conflict, postfeminist gender relations, and egalitarian semicosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many men, most of all those who have no real chance of joining the privileged class. Whether or not it is politically correct to admit it, I believe a lot of men have tendencies toward the brutish, but in today’s America, those tendencies are suppressed.

Female median wages have been rising pretty consistently, along with female education, but the male median wage, at least as it is measured and adjusted for inflation, was higher back in 1969 than it is today.

A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs. These men thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line. Those problems of permitting and also constraining masculinity are too-often forgotten, and our neglect of those issues will help ensure that today’s complacency cannot last.

Maybe it is because we’ve all found our dream jobs?

One big reason for the decline in residential moving stems from a decline in job switching. If people are less likely to change jobs, they are also, for obvious reasons, less likely to move. And if we look at job reallocation rates—a rough measure of turnover in the labor market—they have fallen more than a quarter since 1990.

To give this some concrete numbers, in 1998, 44 percent of workers had five or more years on the job, but as of 2014, this number had increased to 51 percent. The percentage of workers with less than one year on the job had fallen from 28 to 21 percent.

But Mexicans still move…

Americans are outsourcing their mobility and capacity for economic adjustment. When there is mobility in the American labor market, it comes disproportionately from Mexicans and Mexican Americans. When a negative economic shock hits some city or region in the United States, the natural response is for some labor to leave that region and move elsewhere. Of course, not everyone needs to abandon the area, but some people should want to move on. Yet, if most Americans are less mobile than before, who is going to pick up and leave? More and more we see that mobility coming from Mexicans living in America, especially those who are relatively recent arrivals. Mexican-born Mexicans are less likely to have strong regional roots in America, and furthermore a nationwide network of Mexicans—often from the same state or region of Mexico—can help with relocation.

Our money doesn’t take chances anymore either…

The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has estimated that 61 percent of all private-sector financial liabilities are guaranteed by the federal government, either explicitly or implicitly. As recently as 1999, this figure was below 50 percent.

To look at one simple measure of both social and economic stasis, the rate at which business start-ups are forming has been declining since the 1980s. By one estimate, start-ups were 12 to 13 percent of the firms in the economy in the 1980s, but today they are only about 7 to 8 percent. That’s right; for all the talk about Silicon Valley, we are less a start-up nation than before. By the way, this overall decline in start-up frequency is true for virtually every sector and every American city, and that includes San Francisco and even the legendary tech sector. In absolute terms, the number of new tech firms (younger than five years) peaked just after 2000, and in percentage terms, new firms in the tech sector have been declining since the 1980s.

Not only are there fewer start-ups, but a smaller percentage of them are succeeding. That means young firms are a smaller part of the overall market and so American corporations are increasing in average age, just as the American people are. In the late 1980s, 18.9 percent of the employment in the American economy was at firms five years or younger. This average had fallen to 13.5 percent right before the Great Recession; in numerical terms, that is a 29 percent decline over only seventeen years, a significant and rapid drop. New firms are also down as a share of total firms and also as a share of job creation, again since the 1980s.

Time for analysis.

Cowen is a smart person so I will assume that all of his data are correct.

The tendency to stay put seems to be strongest among those with low income. But these are exactly the people who qualify for subsidized (or free) public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid or subsidized Obamacare insurance. They might get heating oil assistance or TANF-style cash payments (see Massachusetts bureaucracy gets 1 in 13 households to come in and beg). There might be a 10-year waiting list for public housing in the desired destination city. Until then, the person who had been living in a great apartment might receive nothing. Why would a person want to invest 10+ years in getting reestablished on all of these disparate state-administered welfare programs?

Cowen compares mobility before and after 1971 and says that there was a big reduction especially in the 1980s. As it happens, the 1970s were when most states adopted no-fault divorce and the percentage of children being reared by two biological parents plummeted (as noted in this chapter, from 73 percent of kids in 1960 to 46 percent today). Why might this be significant? Consider first child support and alimony. Millions of Americans collect money under court orders (see “Litigation, Alimony, and Child Support in the U.S. Economy” for the scale). They might be concerned that if they move away from the court system that put them into the check-of-the-month club it will be harder to collect or reduced in the new state’s course system gains jurisdiction. The parent who wins a custody lawsuit may yet need permission of a judge to move out of state with the kids (see “Relocation and Venue Litigation”). The biological parent who loses a custody lawsuit can move, but it may mean never seeing the former children again. The new partner of a divorced American may be similarly discouraged from moving.  It is a lot easier for an intact family of four to pick up and move to the other coast than it is for someone who is an every-other-weekend parent, the stepparent of a child with a 50/50 schedule, and vicariously collecting child support.

What about corporate welfare? If you’re a small company no state is going to build you a free factory and pay your workers for a couple of years in exchange for you agreeing to set up shop. Thus the existence of corporate welfare should discourage startup formation and reduce the chance that a new company will be successful.

Regulation can be a disguised form of corporate welfare. It might hurt big companies but it will kill small ones that might have been competitors. Hiring a full-time person to read and understand regulations is a more bearable cost when spread over a 1,000-person company compared to a 25-person company.

Why haven’t Mexicans been affected? If they’re not citizens or Green Card holders their access to welfare programs is limited and their only alternative is to move to where the jobs are. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are less likely than white Americans to sue each other for divorce (chart).

Readers: What do you think? Research psychologists say that Americans are uniquely prone to the fundamental attribution error. Can we not explain most of the above as a rational intelligent response to a changed environment?

More: read The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream

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2 days ago
Huh, public assistance reduces mobility. Never occurred to me.
Lafayette, LA, USA
2 days ago
DIVORCE reduces mobility. That REALLY never occurred to me!
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Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons


[Content note: kind of talking around Trump supporters and similar groups as if they’re not there.]


Tim Harford writes The Problem With Facts, which uses Brexit and Trump as jumping-off points to argue that people are mostly impervious to facts and resistant to logic:

All this adds up to a depressing picture for those of us who aren’t ready to live in a post-truth world. Facts, it seems, are toothless. Trying to refute a bold, memorable lie with a fiddly set of facts can often serve to reinforce the myth. Important truths are often stale and dull, and it is easy to manufacture new, more engaging claims. And giving people more facts can backfire, as those facts provoke a defensive reaction in someone who badly wants to stick to their existing world view. “This is dark stuff,” says Reifler. “We’re in a pretty scary and dark time.”

He admits he has no easy answers, but cites some studies showing that “scientific curiosity” seems to help people become interested in facts again. He thinks maybe we can inspire scientific curiosity by linking scientific truths to human interest stories, by weaving compelling narratives, and by finding “a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science”.

I think this is generally a good article and makes important points, but there are three issues I want to highlight as possibly pointing to a deeper pattern.

First, the article makes the very strong claim that “facts are toothless” – then tries to convince its readers of this using facts. For example, the article highlights a study by Nyhan & Reifler which finds a “backfire effect” – correcting people’s misconceptions only makes them cling to those misconceptions more strongly. Harford expects us to be impressed by this study. But how is this different from all of those social science facts to which he believes humans are mostly impervious?

Second, Nyhan & Reifler’s work on the backfire effect is probably not true. The original study establishing its existence failed to replicate (see eg Porter & Wood, 2016). This isn’t directly contrary to Harford’s argument, because Harford doesn’t cite the original study – he cites a slight extension of it done a year later by the same team that comes to a slightly different conclusion. But given that the entire field is now in serious doubt, I feel like it would have been judicious to mention some of this in the article. This is especially true given that the article itself is about the way that false ideas spread by people never double-checking their beliefs. It seems to me that if you believe in an epidemic of falsehood so widespread that the very ability to separate fact from fiction is under threat, it ought to inspire a state of CONSTANT VIGILANCE, where you obsessively question each of your beliefs. Yet Harford writes an entire article about a worldwide plague of false beliefs without mustering enough vigilance to see if the relevant studies are true or not.

Third, Harford describes his article as being about agnotology, “the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced”. His key example is tobacco companies sowing doubt about the negative health effects of smoking – for example, he talks about tobacco companies sponsoring (accurate) research into all of the non-smoking-related causes of disease so that everyone focused on those instead. But his solution – telling engaging stories, adding a human interest element, enjoyable documentaries in the style of Carl Sagan – seems unusually unsuited to the problem. The National Institute of Health can make an engaging human interest documentary about a smoker who got lung cancer. And the tobacco companies can make an engaging human interest documentary about a guy who got cancer because of asbestos, then was saved by tobacco-sponsored research. Opponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be bad, and then proponents of Brexit can make an engaging documentary about all the reasons Brexit would be good. If you get good documentary-makers, I assume both will be equally convincing regardless of what the true facts are.

All three of these points are slightly unfair. The first because Harford’s stronger statements about facts are probably exaggerations, and he just meant that in certain cases people ignore evidence. The second because the specific study cited wasn’t the one that failed to replicate and Harford’s thesis might be that it was different enough from the original that it’s probably true. And the third because the documentaries were just one idea meant to serve a broader goal of increasing “scientific curiosity”, a construct which has been shown in studies to be helpful in getting people to believe true things.

But I worry that taken together, they suggest an unspoken premise of the piece. It isn’t that people are impervious to facts. Harford doesn’t expect his reader to be impervious to facts, he doesn’t expect documentary-makers to be impervious to facts, and he certainly doesn’t expect himself to be impervious to facts. The problem is that there’s some weird tribe of fact-immune troglodytes out there, going around refusing vaccines and voting for Brexit, and the rest of us have to figure out what to do about them. The fundamental problem is one of transmission: how can we make knowledge percolate down from the fact-loving elite to the fact-impervious masses?

And I don’t want to condemn this too hard, because it’s obviously true up to a point. Medical researchers have lots of useful facts about vaccines. Statisticians know some great facts about the link between tobacco and cancer (shame about Ronald Fisher, though). Probably there are even some social scientists who have a fact or two.

Yet as I’ve argued before, excessive focus on things like vaccine denialists teaches the wrong habits. It’s a desire to take a degenerate case, the rare situation where one side is obviously right and the other bizarrely wrong, and make it into the flagship example for modeling all human disagreement. Imagine a theory of jurisprudence designed only to smack down sovereign citizens, or a government pro-innovation policy based entirely on warning inventors against perpetual motion machines.

And in this wider context, part of me wonders if the focus on transmission is part of the problem. Everyone from statisticians to Brexiteers knows that they are right. The only remaining problem is how to convince others. Go on Facebook and you will find a million people with a million different opinions, each confident in her own judgment, each zealously devoted to informing everyone else.

Imagine a classroom where everyone believes they’re the teacher and everyone else is students. They all fight each other for space at the blackboard, give lectures that nobody listens to, assign homework that nobody does. When everyone gets abysmal test scores, one of the teachers has an idea: I need a more engaging curriculum. Sure. That’ll help.


A new Nathan Robinson article: Debate Vs. Persuasion. It goes through the same steps as the Harford article, this time from the perspective of the political Left. Deploying what Robinson calls “Purely Logical Debate” against Trump supporters hasn’t worked. Some leftists think the answer is violence. But this may be premature; instead, we should try the tools of rhetoric, emotional appeal, and other forms of discourse that aren’t Purely Logical Debate. In conclusion, Bernie Would Have Won.

I think giving up on argumentation, reason, and language, just because Purely Logical Debate doesn’t work, is a mistake. It’s easy to think that if we can’t convince the right with facts, there’s no hope at all for public discourse. But this might not suggest anything about the possibilities of persuasion and dialogue. Instead, it might suggest that mere facts are rhetorically insufficient to get people excited about your political program.

The resemblance to Harford is obvious. You can’t convince people with facts. But you might be able to convince people with facts carefully intermixed with human interest, compelling narrative, and emotional appeal.

Once again, I think this is generally a good article and makes important points. But I still want to challenge whether things are quite as bad as it says.

Google “debating Trump supporters is”, and you realize where the article is coming from. It’s page after page of “debating Trump supporters is pointless”, “debating Trump supporters is a waste of time”, and “debating Trump supporters is like [funny metaphor for thing that doesn’t work]”. The overall picture you get is of a world full of Trump opponents and supporters debating on every street corner, until finally, after months of banging their heads against the wall, everyone collectively decided it was futile.

Yet I have the opposite impression. Somehow a sharply polarized country went through a historically divisive election with essentially no debate taking place.

Am I about to No True Scotsman the hell out of the word “debate”? Maybe. But I feel like in using the exaggerated phrase “Purely Logical Debate, Robinson has given me leave to define the term as strictly as I like. So here’s what I think are minimum standards to deserve the capital letters:

1. Debate where two people with opposing views are talking to each other (or writing, or IMing, or some form of bilateral communication). Not a pundit putting an article on Huffington Post and demanding Trump supporters read it. Not even a Trump supporter who comments on the article with a counterargument that the author will never read. Two people who have chosen to engage and to listen to one another.

2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it. So not something where someone posts a “HILLARY IS A CROOK” meme on Facebook, someone gets really angry and lists all the reasons Trump is an even bigger crook, and then the original poster gets angry and has to tell them why they’re wrong. Two people who have made it their business to come together at a certain time in order to compare opinions.

3. Debate conducted in the spirit of mutual respect and collaborative truth-seeking. Both people reject personal attacks or ‘gotcha’ style digs. Both people understand that the other person is around the same level of intelligence as they are and may have some useful things to say. Both people understand that they themselves might have some false beliefs that the other person will be able to correct for them. Both people go into the debate with the hope of convincing their opponent, but not completely rejecting the possibility that their opponent might convince them also.

4. Debate conducted outside of a high-pressure point-scoring environment. No audience cheering on both participants to respond as quickly and bitingly as possible. If it can’t be done online, at least do it with a smartphone around so you can open Wikipedia to resolve simple matters of fact.

5. Debate where both people agree on what’s being debated and try to stick to the subject at hand. None of this “I’m going to vote Trump because I think Clinton is corrupt” followed by “Yeah, but Reagan was even worse and that just proves you Republicans are hypocrites” followed by “We’re hypocrites? You Democrats claim to support women’s rights but you love Muslims who make women wear headscarves!” Whether or not it’s hypocritical to “support women’s rights” but “love Muslims”, it doesn’t seem like anyone is even trying to change each other’s mind about Clinton at this point.

These to me seem like the bare minimum conditions for a debate that could possibly be productive.

(and while I’m asking for a pony on a silver platter, how about both people have to read How To Actually Change Your Mind first?)

Meanwhile, in reality…

If you search “debating Trump supporters” without the “is”, your first result is this video, where some people with a microphone corner some other people at what looks like a rally. I can’t really follow the conversation because they’re all shouting at the same time, but I can make out somebody saying ‘Republicans give more to charity!’ and someone else responding ‘That’s cause they don’t do anything at their jobs!'”. Okay.

The second link is this podcast where a guy talks about debating Trump supporters. After the usual preface about how stupid they were, he describes a typical exchange – “It’s kind of amazing how they want to go back to the good old days…Well, when I start asking them ‘You mean the good old days when 30% of the population were in unions’…they never seem to like to hear that!…so all this unfettered free market capitalism has got to go bye-bye. They don’t find comfort in that idea either. It’s amazing. I can say I now know what cognitive dissonance feels like on someone’s face.” I’m glad time travel seems to be impossible, because otherwise I would be tempted to warp back and change my vote to Trump just to spite this person.

The third link is Vanity Fair’s “Foolproof Guide To Arguing With Trump Supporters”, which suggests “using their patriotism against them” by telling them that wanting to “curtail the rights and privileges of certain of our citizens” is un-American.

I worry that people do this kind of thing every so often. Then, when it fails, they conclude “Trump supporters are immune to logic”. This is much like observing that Republicans go out in the rain without melting, and concluding “Trump supporters are immortal”.

Am I saying that if you met with a conservative friend for an hour in a quiet cafe to talk over your disagreements, they’d come away convinced? No. I’ve changed my mind on various things during my life, and it was never a single moment that did it. It was more of a series of different things, each taking me a fraction of the way. As the old saying goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win.”

There might be a parallel here with the one place I see something like Purely Logical Debate on a routine basis: cognitive psychotherapy. I know this comparison sounds crazy, because psychotherapy is supposed to be the opposite of a debate, and trying to argue someone out of their delusions or depression inevitably fails. The rookiest of all rookie therapist mistakes is to say “FACT CHECK: The patient says she is a loser who everybody hates. PsychiaFact rates this claim: PANTS ON FIRE.”

But in other ways it’s a lot like the five points above. You have two people who disagree – the patient thinks she’s a worthless loser who everyone hates, and the therapist thinks maybe not. They meet together in a spirit of voluntary mutual inquiry, guaranteed safe from personal attacks like “You’re crazy!”. Both sides go over the evidence together, sometimes even agreeing on explicit experiments like “Ask your boyfriend tonight whether he hates you or not, predict beforehand what you think he’s going to say, and see if your prediction is accurate”. And both sides approach the whole process suspecting that they’re right but admitting the possibility that they’re wrong (very occasionally, after weeks of therapy, I realize that frick, everyone really does hate my patient. Then we switch strategies to helping her with social skills, or helping her find better friends).

And contrary to what you see in movies, this doesn’t usually give a single moment of blinding revelation. If you spent your entire life talking yourself into the belief that you’re a loser and everyone hates you, no single fact or person is going to talk you out of it. But after however many months of intensive therapy, sometimes someone who was sure that they were a loser is now sort of questioning whether they’re a loser, and has the mental toolbox to take things the rest of the way themselves.

This was also the response I got when I tried to make an anti-Trump case on this blog. I don’t think there were any sudden conversions, but here were some of the positive comments I got from Trump supporters:

“This is a compelling case, but I’m still torn.”

“This contains the most convincing arguments for a Clinton presidency I have ever seen. But, perhaps also unsurprisingly, while it did manage to shift some of my views, it did not succeed in convincing me to change my bottom line.”

“This article is perhaps the best argument I have seen yet for Hillary. I found myself nodding along with many of the arguments, after this morning swearing that there was nothing that could make me consider voting for Hillary…the problem in the end was that it wasn’t enough.”

“The first coherent article I’ve read justifying voting for Clinton. I don’t agree with your analysis of the dollar “value” of a vote, but other than that, something to think about.”

“Well I don’t like Clinton at all, and I found this essay reasonable enough. The argument from continuity is probably the best one for voting Clinton if you don’t particularly love any of her policies or her as a person. Trump is a wild card, I must admit.”

As an orthodox Catholic, you would probably classify me as part of your conservative audience…I certainly concur with both the variance arguments and that he’s not conservative by policy, life, or temperament, and I will remain open to hearing what you have to say on the topic through November.

“I’ve only come around to the ‘hold your nose and vote Trump’ camp the past month or so…I won’t say [you] didn’t make me squirm, but I’m holding fast to my decision.”

These are the people you say are completely impervious to logic so don’t even try? It seems to me like this argument was one of not-so-many straws that might have broken some camels’ backs if they’d been allowed to accumulate. And the weird thing is, when I re-read the essay I notice a lot of flaws and things I wish I’d said differently. I don’t think it was an exceptionally good argument. I think it was…an argument. It was something more than saying “You think the old days were so great, but the old days had labor unions, CHECKMATE ATHEISTS”. This isn’t what you get when you do a splendid virtuouso perfomance. This is what you get when you show up.

(and lest I end up ‘objectifying’ Trump supporters as prizes to be won, I’ll add that in the comments some people made pro-Trump arguments, and two people who were previously leaning Clinton said that they were feeling uncomfortably close to being convinced)

Another SSC story. I keep trying to keep “culture war”-style political arguments from overrunning the blog and subreddit, and every time I add restrictions a bunch of people complain that this is the only place they can go for that. Think about this for a second. A heavily polarized country of three hundred million people, split pretty evenly into two sides and obsessed with politics, blessed with the strongest free speech laws in the world, and people are complaining that I can’t change my comment policy because this one small blog is the only place they know where they can debate people from the other side.

Given all of this, I reject the argument that Purely Logical Debate has been tried and found wanting. Like GK Chesterton, I think it has been found difficult and left untried.


Therapy might change minds, and so might friendly debate among equals, but neither of them scales very well. Is there anything that big fish in the media can do beyond the transmission they’re already trying?

Let’s go back to that Nyhan & Reifler study which found that fact-checking backfired. As I mentioned above, a replication attempt by Porter & Wood found the opposite. This could have been the setup for a nasty conflict, with both groups trying to convince academia and the public that they were right, or even accusing the other of scientific malpractice.

Instead, something great happened. All four researchers decided to work together on an “adversarial collaboration” – a bigger, better study where they all had input into the methodology and they all checked the results independently. The collaboration found that fact-checking generally didn’t backfire in most cases. All four of them used their scientific clout to publicize the new result and launch further investigations into the role of different contexts and situations.

Instead of treating disagreement as demonstrating a need to transmit their own opinion more effectively, they viewed it as demonstrating a need to collaborate to investigate the question together.

And yeah, part of it was that they were all decent scientists who respected each other. But they didn’t have to be. If one team had been total morons, and the other team was secretly laughing at them the whole time, the collaboration still would have worked. All required was an assumption of good faith.

A while ago I blogged about a journalistic spat between German Lopez and Robert VerBruggen on gun control. Lopez wrote a voxsplainer citing some statistics about guns. VerBruggen wrote a piece at National Review saying that some of the statistics were flawed. German fired back (pun not intended) with an article claiming that VerBruggen was ignoring better studies.

(Then I yelled at both of them, as usual.)

Overall the exchange was in the top 1% of online social science journalism – by which I mean it included at least one statistic and at some point that statistic was superficially examined. But in the end, it was still just two people arguing with one another, each trying to transmit his superior knowledge to each other and the reading public. As good as it was, it didn’t meet my five standards above – and nobody expected it to.

But now I’m thinking – what would have happened if Lopez and VerBruggen had joined together in an adversarial collaboration? Agreed to work together to write an article on gun statistics, with nothing going into the article unless they both approved, and then they both published that article on their respective sites?

This seems like a mass media equivalent of shifting from Twitter spats to serious debate, from transmission mindset to collaborative truth-seeking mindset. The adversarial collaboration model is just the first one to come to mind right now. I’ve blogged about others before – for example, bets, prediction markets, and calibration training.

The media already spends a lot of effort recommending good behavior. What if they tried modeling it?


The bigger question hanging over all of this: “Do we have to?”

Harford’s solution – compelling narratives and documentaries – sounds easy and fun. Robinson’s solution – rhetoric and emotional appeals – also sounds easy and fun. Even the solution Robinson rejects – violence – is easy, and fun for a certain type of person. All three work on pretty much anybody.

Purely Logical Debate is difficult and annoying. It doesn’t scale. It only works on the subset of people who are willing to talk to you in good faith and smart enough to understand the issues involved. And even then, it only works glacially slowly, and you win only partial victories. What’s the point?

Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. In ideal conditions (which may or may not ever happen in real life) – the kind of conditions where everyone is charitable and intelligent and wise – the good guys will be able to present stronger evidence, cite more experts, and invoke more compelling moral principles. The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.

Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do. It’s true that hopefully the good guys will be more popular than the bad guys, and so able to gather more soldiers. But this doesn’t mean violence itself is asymmetric – the good guys will only be more popular than the bad guys insofar as their ideas have previously spread through some means other than violence. Right now antifascists outnumber fascists and so could probably beat them in a fight, but antifascists didn’t come to outnumber fascists by winning some kind of primordial fistfight between the two sides. They came to outnumber fascists because people rejected fascism on the merits. These merits might not have been “logical” in the sense of Aristotle dispassionately proving lemmas at a chalkboard, but “fascists kill people, killing people is wrong, therefore fascism is wrong” is a sort of folk logical conclusion which is both correct and compelling. Even “a fascist killed my brother, so fuck them” is a placeholder for a powerful philosophical argument making a probabilistic generalization from indexical evidence to global utility. So insofar as violence is asymmetric, it’s because it parasitizes on logic which allows the good guys to be more convincing and so field a bigger army. Violence itself doesn’t enhance that asymmetry; if anything, it decreases it by giving an advantage to whoever is more ruthless and power-hungry.

The same is true of documentaries. As I said before, Harford can produce as many anti-Trump documentaries as he wants, but Trump can fund documentaries of his own. He has the best documentaries. Nobody has ever seen documentaries like this. They’ll be absolutely huge.

And the same is true of rhetoric. Martin Luther King was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for good things. But Hitler was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for bad things. I’ve previously argued that Mohammed counts as the most successful persuader of all time. These three people pushed three very different ideologies, and rhetoric worked for them all. Robinson writes as if “use rhetoric and emotional appeals” is a novel idea for Democrats, but it seems to me like they were doing little else throughout the election (pieces attacking Trump’s character, pieces talking about how inspirational Hillary was, pieces appealing to various American principles like equality, et cetera). It’s just that they did a bad job, and Trump did a better one. The real takeaway here is “do rhetoric better than the other guy”. But “succeed” is not a primitive action.

Unless you use asymmetric weapons, the best you can hope for is to win by coincidence.

That is, there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at rhetoric than bad guys. Some days the Left will have an Obama and win the rhetoric war. Other days the Right will have a Reagan and they’ll win the rhetoric war. Overall you should average out to a 50% success rate. When you win, it’ll be because you got lucky.

And there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at documentaries than bad guys. Some days the NIH will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke less. Other days the tobacco companies will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke more. Overall smoking will stay the same. And again, if you win, it’s because you lucked out into having better videographers or something.

I’m not against winning by coincidence. If I stumbled across Stalin and I happened to have a gun, I would shoot him without worrying about how it’s “only by coincidence” that he didn’t have the gun instead of me. You should use your symmetric weapons if for no reason other than that the other side’s going to use theirs and so you’ll have a disadvantage if you don’t. But you shouldn’t confuse it with a long-term solution.

Improving the quality of debate, shifting people’s mindsets from transmission to collaborative truth-seeking, is a painful process. It has to be done one person at a time, it only works on people who are already almost ready for it, and you will pick up far fewer warm bodies per hour of work than with any of the other methods. But in an otherwise-random world, even a little purposeful action can make a difference. Convincing 2% of people would have flipped three of the last four US presidential elections. And this is a capacity to win-for-reasons-other-than-coincidence that you can’t build any other way.

(and my hope is that the people most willing to engage in debate, and the ones most likely to recognize truth when they see it, are disproportionately influential – scientists, writers, and community leaders who have influence beyond their number and can help others see reason in turn)

I worry that I’m not communicating how beautiful and inevitable all of this is. We’re surrounded by a a vast confusion, “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night”, with one side or another making a temporary advance and then falling back in turn. And in the middle of all of it, there’s this gradual capacity-building going on, where what starts off as a hopelessly weak signal gradually builds up strength, until one army starts winning a little more often than chance, then a lot more often, and finally takes the field entirely. Which seems strange, because surely you can’t build any complex signal-detection machinery in the middle of all the chaos, surely you’d be shot the moment you left the trenches, but – your enemies are helping you do it. Both sides are diverting their artillery from the relevant areas, pooling their resources, helping bring supplies to the engineers, because until the very end they think it’s going to ensure their final victory and not yours.

You’re doing it right under their noses. They might try to ban your documentaries, heckle your speeches, fight your violence Middlebury-student-for-Middlebury-student – but when it comes to the long-term solution to ensure your complete victory, they’ll roll down their sleeves, get out their hammers, and build it alongside you.

A parable: Sally is a psychiatrist. Her patient has a strange delusion: that Sally is the patient and he is the psychiatrist. She would like to commit him and force medication on him, but he is an important politician and if push comes to shove he might be able to commit her instead. In desperation, she proposes a bargain: they will both take a certain medication. He agrees; from within his delusion, it’s the best way for him-the-psychiatrist to cure her-the-patient. The two take their pills at the same time. The medication works, and the patient makes a full recovery.

(well, half the time. The other half, the medication works and Sally makes a full recovery.)


Harford’s article says that facts and logic don’t work on people. The various lefty articles say they merely don’t work on Trump supporters, ie 50% of the population.

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on people, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be jettisoning everything you believe and entering a state of pure Cartesian doubt, where you try to rederive everything from cogito ergo sum.

If you genuinely believe that facts and logic don’t work on at least 50% of the population, again, you shouldn’t be writing articles with potential solutions. You should be worrying whether you’re in that 50%. After all, how did you figure out you aren’t? By using facts and logic? What did we just say?

Nobody is doing either of these things, so I conclude that they accept that facts can sometimes work. Asymmetric weapons are not a pipe dream. As Gandhi used to say, “If you think the world is all bad, remember that it contains people like you.”

You are not completely immune to facts and logic. But you have been wrong about things before. You may be a bit smarter than the people on the other side. You may even be a lot smarter. But fundamentally their problems are your problems, and the same kind of logic that convinced you can convince them. It’s just going to be a long slog. You didn’t develop your opinions after a five-minute shouting match. You developed them after years of education and acculturation and engaging with hundreds of books and hundreds of people. Why should they be any different?

You end up believing that the problem is deeper than insufficient documentary production. The problem is that Truth is a weak signal. You’re trying to perceive Truth. You would like to hope that the other side is trying to perceive Truth too. But at least one of you is doing it wrong. It seems like perceiving Truth accurately is harder than you thought.

You believe your mind is a truth-sensing instrument that does at least a little bit better than chance. You have to believe that, or else what’s the point? But it’s like one of those physics experiments set up to detect gravitational waves or something, where it has to be in a cavern five hundred feet underground in a lead-shielded chamber atop a gyroscopically stable platform cooled to one degree above absolute zero, trying to detect fluctuations of a millionth of a centimeter. Except you don’t have the cavern or the lead or the gyroscope or the coolants. You’re on top of an erupting volcano being pelted by meteorites in the middle of a hurricane.

If you study psychology for ten years, you can remove the volcano. If you spend another ten years obsessively checking your performance in various metis-intensive domains, you can remove the meteorites. You can never remove the hurricane and you shouldn’t try. But if there are a thousand trustworthy people at a thousand different parts of the hurricane, then the stray gusts of wind will cancel out and they can average their readings to get something approaching a signal.

All of this is too slow and uncertain for a world that needs more wisdom now. It would be nice to force the matter, to pelt people with speeches and documentaries until they come around. This will work in the short term. In the long term, it will leave you back where you started.

If you want people to be right more often than chance, you have to teach them ways to distinguish truth from falsehood. If this is in the face of enemy action, you will have to teach them so well that they cannot be fooled. You will have to do it person by person until the signal is strong and clear. You will have to raise the sanity waterline. There is no shortcut.

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4 days ago
Lafayette, LA, USA
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